By Richard Vedder
Tom Mortenson provides some of the greatest data on higher education issues, and in the March issue of Postsecondary Education Opportunity, he shows that there are vast numbers of prestigious four year institutions that are vastly underrepresented with respect to low income students, as measured by the proportion of students receiving Pell Grants. He aptly calls them "gated communities of higher education."
What is particularly interesting is that there are many flagship state universities where the proportion of those receiving Pells is less than one-half the national average of 36.8 percent. That is true in the Northeast (Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire), the South (Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia), the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), and the Far West (Alaska, Colorado, Nevada). The University of Virginia, for example has a lower proportion of Pell grant recipients (7.9 percent) than does Harvard, Yale or Princeton, the epitome of elitist private education. Similarly its cross state rival, the College of Wiliam and Mary, has a lower proportion than, say, Northwestern, the University of Pennsylvania or Duke.
The original motivation behind most state universities was a desire to provide low cost education for the masses. Yet the flagship universities are very often almost contemptuous of this mission. While Marie Antoinette may have said to the French peasants who could not afford bread, "let them eat cake," today's state university president confronted with the fact that few poor go to his or her school say "let them go to a community college."
The question is, then: why do we use state government funds to support universities? Is it exclusively to fund research missions? Are universities subsidized because they are vehicles for economic development? If so, the evidence is that the subsidies are mis-directed, because the preponderance of evidence I have observed shows that we must reject the notion that "more higher education spending promotes economic growth."
Why not just privatize the schools? The mission the institutions want to pursue is widely at variance from the notion that they open doors for economic opportunity for students otherwise unable to afford them.
Having said all of that, I believe a truly private school, one not taking federal assistance, should have the right to take any student they want, on any criterion. And that may mean they wish to discriminate on the basis of money -- those who can afford sky high tuition rates get in, those who cannot, do not get admitted. There may be room for Yuppie University, catering to the rich. But if the general taxpaying public directly or indirectly is asked to subsidize the enterprise, the American equalitarian tradition casts some suspicion on the legitimacy of the policies prevailing at many of our great public universities. Gated communities are okay, just don't ask me to help pay for them with my taxes.